In Search of the Afghan Maliki

The U.S. should focus on its own interests

Early in 2007, as the American presidential campaign started to gather momentum, critics of Pres. George W. Bush’s War on Terror invented a scheme that allowed them to oppose the administration’s strategy while dodging charges of appeasement. Under that scheme, Iraq was presented as “the bad war” or, according to Sen. Barack Obama, “the wrong war, at the wrong time, and in the wrong place.” In contrast, Afghanistan was presented as “the good war,” the “just war,” or even “the necessary war.”

The argument was that the war in Iraq was wrong because it had not been explicitly approved by the United Nations, while the invasion of Afghanistan had been. That argument ignored the fact that the U.N. Security Council had passed 14 resolutions about Iraq, all of them implicitly allowing the use of force against the Baathist regime. The fact that of all the wars in the world since 1945 the U.N. had ordered only three explicitly did not prevent critics from singling out the liberation of Iraq as a violation of international law. Those critics also ignored the fact that the U.S. Congress had overwhelmingly approved the use of force against Saddam Hussein, thus providing the legal basis that they claimed was lacking.

Opponents of the liberation of Iraq also claimed that the invasion had been wrong because it had not enjoyed the support of U.S. allies. However, among the key U.S. allies, only France and Germany had not backed the war. The “coalition of the willing” that joined the U.S. in liberating Iraq initially included 49 countries (35 had rallied to the cause in Afghanistan).

Critics of the war in Iraq also used a third argument: Taking action against Afghanistan was legitimate because it had harbored al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization whose operatives attacked the U.S. on 9/11. (The critics ignored the fact that al-Qaeda had been established in Afghanistan years before the Taliban appeared on the scene.) They saw the American intervention in Afghanistan as a case of self-defense, while Iraq represented an example of the type of preemptive war that they regarded as the Bush administration’s most dangerous invention.

Over the two years that followed, this argument was transformed into a pillar of Candidate Obama’s platform, with the promise that, once he had won the election, it would be a key element of his foreign policy. As president, Obama would withdraw from Iraq but increase American military presence in Afghanistan — from which he would also invade Pakistan, if necessary.

This analysis was motivated by clever electoral calculations — and it might not reflect the real interests of the United States in the “Arc of Crisis” spanning from Central Asia to North Africa, passing through the Persian Gulf and the Levant. 


In intervening in Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. had three key interests. The first was to show friend and foe alike that it could not be attacked with impunity. Prior to 9/11, the U.S. had suffered a series of terrorist attacks, from the seizure of its diplomats as hostages in Tehran to the mass murder of 241 U.S. service personnel in Beirut to the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, but had not hit back in a way that dissuaded future aggressors. By declaring war on Afghanistan, the U.S. was making up for that mistake, reassuring its friends and warning its enemies. The U.S.’s second interest was in finding and destroying the bases from which terror had been exported to America and, where possible, capturing or killing the masterminds. Its third interest was to help Afghans replace the Taliban with a government of their own choice in the hope that it would prevent the re-emergence of terrorist bases.

By 2005, all three objectives had been achieved. The world had absorbed the message that, if attacked, the U.S. would fight back. U.S. and allied forces had destroyed every single terrorist base used by dozens of groups, many with no links to al-Qaeda, throughout Afghanistan. They had also killed or captured most of the terrorists present in Afghanistan at the time. By 2007, in fact, of the 25 senior leaders of al-Qaeda, only three were still alive and free, presumably hiding in Pakistan. Many in the region were even convinced that Osama bin Laden, the self-styled “supreme guide” of al-Qaeda, had died as early as December 2001 — this despite audio and video messages broadcast in his name on a few occasions since 2004. The U.S. had also supervised a process of consultations and referenda that led to the writing of a new democratic constitution and the election of a new parliament and president in Afghanistan.

By the end of 2005, therefore, the U.S. could have declared victory in Afghanistan and started to reduce its military footprint in preparation for full disengagement. However, the Bush administration could not contemplate such a course — for two reasons: First, Afghanistan was perceived as “the good war” and thus could not be abandoned while “the bad war” continued in Iraq. And second, the Afghan enterprise had developed a momentum of its own and brought up a set of new objectives that had little relation to U.S. national interests. 

Rebuilding Afghanistan’s economy by reviving its agriculture, destroying the opium trade, improving the status of women, increasing the number of children in school, and creating a Western-style judiciary were all laudable objectives; but they didn’t have much to do with U.S. national interests. More important, perhaps, these were objectives that no outside power could hope to achieve without the full participation of the native population, let alone against its will. 


It is also important to emphasize a fact often ignored in the debate on Afghanistan: The Taliban had never been an explicitly anti-American outfit. In fact, the Taliban were created by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan, all allies of the U.S., in or around 1993 with the goal of preventing pro-Iran elements from controlling Afghanistan after the fall of the Communist regime. Nursed on the Salafist ideology, the Taliban saw itself at war primarily against Shiites and other non-Salafist Muslims rather than against the U.S. or any other “infidel” power. The mass of Taliban literature, including addresses by Mullah Muhammad Omar, their emir al-momineen (“commander of the faithful”), contained no specifically anti-American themes. A year before 9/11, the Taliban had opened talks with the Clinton administration to establish diplomatic ties with the U.S. Clinton had dispatched a number of high-profile emissaries, including the then-envoy to the U.N., Bill Richardson, to Kabul for talks with Taliban leaders.

For their part, the Taliban used Zalmay Khalilzad, who was to become a key diplomat in the Bush administration, as its chief lobbyist in Washington. In August 2001, just weeks before the 9/11 attacks, Taliban foreign minister Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil told me that his regime would soon open its embassy in Washington. Hamid Karzai, the future president of Afghanistan, was to be the Taliban ambassador. Soon afterward, I heard the same message from Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, in Doha. A few days later, Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister and head of the International Crisis Group, confirmed Mutawakil’s hopes. In an interview in Brussels he told me that an international consensus was emerging in support of “recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.”

While everyone acknowledged that the presence of Osama bin Laden and his group on Afghan territory was a problem, no one claimed that the Taliban was an anti-American movement. The U.S. had a specific national interest in trying to kill or capture the man behind a series of attacks on American targets since 1993, including the suicide raid against the USS Cole and the destruction of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. At the same time, however, the U.S. had no national interest in toppling the Taliban regime. True, the Taliban had refused to hand over bin Laden to the Americans. But they had not done so in accordance with any specifically anti-American ideology. Months before the Americans made their demand, the Taliban had rejected a similar demand from the Saudis, who had financed them for years. Obnoxious as it certainly was, the Taliban regime presented no specific threat to the U.S.

The U.S. involvement in Afghanistan started, therefore, with objectives that had a realistic chance of being achieved by the Americans and their allies — but ended up with new goals that no outsider could hope to reach. 


On advice from Karzai, Khalilzad, and a number of other Afghan exiles, the Bush administration, which had little knowledge of Afghanistan, was sucked into a project founded on a number of illusions. The chief illusion was that Afghanistan could develop a system of highly centralized government headed by a U.S.-style president and a strong executive branch. That scheme ignored Afghanistan’s historical and geographical realities. Afghanistan emerged as a loosely knit independent state in the 18th century and was accepted as a buffer setting the limits of the Tsarist, Persian, and British empires in Central Asia. A patchwork of ethnic and religious communities, Afghanistan developed a system of rule in which tribal chiefs and Muslim clerics enjoyed a great measure of autonomy under the nominal suzerainty of a distant king who never tried to impose his will throughout his realm by force. The idea that Afghanistan is a land of unruly tribes was generally recognized in the Muslim world. It was not for nothing that Muslims always referred to Afghanistan as Taghistan (“The Land of Insolence”).

The Taliban knew all that and never tried to impose central control over the country. They preferred to secure the allegiance of local tribal and religious leaders with a mixture of bribery and deference. It is well known that the Taliban conquered more land with Samsonites full of crisp U.S. dollar notes than with Soviet-style AK rifles.

The best structure for Afghanistan is that of a loose federation in which its 18 ethnic and religious communities enjoy full economic, cultural, and administrative autonomy. Yet the system developed in Afghanistan since 2002 has gone in the exact opposite direction. The Afghan president today has powers that no Afghan king ever dreamt of. The problem is that these powers cannot be used without provoking violent resistance from a majority of Afghans — and such violence cannot be dealt with except by force. President Karzai, a member of a minor Pashtun (Pathan) tribe who lacks a constituency of his own, cannot master the force needed to impose central-government control throughout his unruly land. He has been trying to do so by relying on American power. The result is that the U.S. has been sucked into Afghan politics as another tribe, albeit one that has greater firepower than the rest.

U.S. policy was put on the wrong trajectory from the start. Once the Taliban had gone into hiding, the exile Afghans persuaded the Bush administration to marginalize and eventually expel virtually all the political and military leaders who had fought first the Communists and then the Taliban over the years. Branded “warlords,” these natural leaders of the various Afghan communities were given a reason to dislike America. Even the Northern Alliance, a grouping of 34 armed bands and political organizations that had cooperated with the U.S. and seized control of Kabul after the departure of the Taliban, was pushed to one side as Washington helped exiles with no national constituencies dominate the Afghan political scene. This was in sharp contrast with American policy in Iraq: There, the “warlords” had been recognized and accepted as legitimate partners in building the post-Saddam system.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies have been dragged into what is essentially a multi-layered civil war in which the new elite, led by Karzai, is fighting to preserve its power against a variety of rivals from the Pashtun community that, accounting for some 42 percent of the population, constitutes the country’s largest ethnic component. A majority of the Tajiks, some 27 percent of the population, and the Uzbeks, some 9 percent, and the Hazara Shiites, another 9 percent, have decided to stay on the sidelines, if only because they have no dog in this fight. They see no reason why they should fight for the Karzai regime that, using U.S. power, has marginalized them. The trouble is that the new ruling elite, including the bloated and corrupt bureaucracy and the slick-looking but inefficient military, is also reluctant to do the necessary dirty work, leaving all that to the Americans and their Western allies. The new elite has developed a room-service mentality, convinced that all it needs to do is to ring the bell for the Americans to do the job. 


The backbone of the current insurgency in Afghanistan consists of Pashtun tribes, especially in the southwestern provinces that have been excluded from power. These tribes would have fought any central government that ignored their voice. Thus their campaign should not be seen as part of an Islamist anti-American jihad. The U.S. and its allies cannot win this war, because their side — the Karzai clan — lacks the tribal support needed to defeat the insurgency. While the Taliban provides leadership for part of the insurgency in some sectors of the Pashtun heartland, it would be wrong to ignore other groups and clans involved in this power struggle.

The Pashtun ethnic revolt, and its ideological manifestation through the Taliban, is only part of the insurgency. Iran is also using a number of Pashtun groups, under the umbrella of Hezb-i-Islami (The Islamic Party), led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to divide the Pashtuns and weaken Karzai’s U.S.-backed administration. Pakistani military intelligence — the ISI — is running a number of armed Pashtun tribes in the hope that, once the Americans have gone, Islamabad will not be left without a lever to influence Afghan politics. Karzai and his associates have also invoked American power in support of old Afghan chauvinistic claims against Pakistan in the hope of gaining a measure of nationalistic legitimacy. Afghan chauvinists have always claimed that Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier, where ethnic Pashtuns are a majority, is an “integral part” of Afghanistan and should be reunited with the fatherland. Based on that claim, the Afghans refused to recognize the emergence of Pakistan as an independent state for almost two decades. By reviving that irredentist tension, Karzai has encouraged Pakistani hardliners who claim that the American presence in Afghanistan could be a threat to Pakistan’s territorial integrity.

To complicate matters further, we also have a number of freelance mujaheddin, such as the group led by Mullah Jalaluddin Haqqani (who is now ill and believed to be dying in Abu Dhabi), that switch sides according to the mood of the moment and the size of the bribe. A third strand to the insurgency is represented by a dozen or so armed gangs recruited and financed by the drug barons in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Often, these groups use the label of Taliban to secure tribal and/or religious legitimacy.

It is obvious that the U.S., or indeed any other outside power, cannot win a clear-cut and definite victory against groups capable of waging low-intensity war on small budgets for decades.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan has still other international dimensions. In 2001, Afghanistan sheltered scores of Islamist terror organizations from more than 40 countries across the globe. The principal Islamist force fighting Russia in Chechnya maintained most of its camps in Afghanistan, training hundreds of fighters each year. The three principal terrorist groups fighting India in Kashmir were equally dependent on their Afghan bases. The Algerian Salafist group for Preaching and Armed Combat (GSPDA), the Libyan Islamic Jihad, the Egyptian Islamic Society (Gamaah Islamiyah), and the Yemeni Sons of Jihad Movement all depended on Afghan bases for continuing their wars in their home countries. Afghanistan also sheltered at least four armed groups fighting China in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), two groups fighting in the Philippines, a group fighting in Thailand, and half a dozen groups fighting in Indonesia. Many European countries were affected as a growing number of their Muslim citizens came to Afghanistan to train for armed jihad. Between 2001 and 2007, U.S. and allied forces have killed or captured over 400 such European jihadists. (By contrast, only two U.S. citizens, converts to Islam, were captured in Afghanistan.)

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan has led to the destruction of all the bases used by terror organizations, of which only one, al-Qaeda, had had a specifically anti-American agenda. In some cases, such as that of the Hizb Tahrir Islami (Islamic Liberation Party), which had been fighting a guerrilla war in Uzbekistan since the 1990s, the American intervention in Afghanistan led to almost total destruction. With its Afghan bases dismantled and dozens of its fighters killed or captured by the Americans, the Hizb never recovered, allowing the government of Pres. Islam Karimov to declare the end of the insurgency. Karimov is not the only one to have benefited from American efforts in Afghanistan. The destruction of Chechen bases in Afghanistan helped Russian president Vladimir Putin to crush the rebellion in Chechnya by 2005. U.S. intervention in Afghanistan has also helped Saudi Arabia defeat its own Islamist terror groups, which, having lost their Afghan bases, were unable to find new training grounds and safe havens.

In other words, the U.S. spent blood and treasure in Afghanistan to dismantle many different groups that fought many different countries, including some of America’s enemies, rivals, and adversaries. While that outcome is certainly positive from the point of view of international peace, it cannot be described as something exclusively serving U.S. interests. To make matters worse, all the countries that have benefited from U.S. intervention in Afghanistan — including such major powers as China, India, and Russia and such wealthy states as Saudi Arabia — have been reluctant to make an adequate contribution in blood and treasure to the Afghan project.

For the U.S. to become even more heavily involved in defending an unworkable constitution, a weak and corrupt ruling elite, and an army and bureaucracy that do not wish to do their jobs, is bad politics to say the least. As things are today, the U.S. has no clear national interest in maintaining an open-ended presence in Afghanistan. It certainly shares the interest of many other nations in making sure that Afghanistan does not become a haven for terrorists once again. However, even in 2001, such powers as Russia, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, the Philippines, and even the Islamic Republic in Iran were more threatened by terror groups located in Afghanistan than was the United States.

To be sure, the U.S. cannot just pull the plug and walk away. But it can make its continued presence conditional on the implementation of a political strategy in Afghanistan.

This should include constitutional changes to decentralize power, perhaps by developing a loose parliamentary system similar to the one that has succeeded in Iraq. That would enable the Pashtun malcontents, including segments of the Taliban, to receive a share of power. Pakistan should also be reassured that it will not be excluded from the Afghan scene and that old Afghan chauvinism will not be used against it. All the nations that have benefited from the destruction of terror groups in Afghanistan should be asked to make proper contributions — a request backed by the assertion that the U.S. is not prepared to fight their wars forever.

All this would require the appointment of a coordinator enjoying full American support plus U.N. legitimacy. Such a coordinator could end the disarray that has marked NATO operations in Afghanistan and make sure that the alliance, the U.N., and the Afghan authorities pull in the same direction. Next year’s presidential election in Afghanistan provides an excellent opportunity for introducing the changes needed to guide the country away from an over-centralized form of government and toward a system of devolution that reflects the nation’s ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity.

One reason for Gen. David Petraeus’s success in Iraq was that he realized early on that most of the groups that kept the insurgency going had no specifically anti-American agendas. The same is true of most of the groups keeping the Afghan pot on the boil. Just as in Iraq, the U.S. in Afghanistan has no permanent friends or enemies and, as long as its national interests are not threatened, no reason to favor one outcome of the power struggle to another. The man who helped the U.S. achieve success in Iraq was not Ahmad Chalabi, a long-time favorite in Washington, but Nouri al-Maliki, whose Ad-Da’awah (The Call) party had initially regarded the American intervention with great skepticism, to say the least.

Two years ago, the talk in Washington was on how to find a Karzai for Iraq. Today, the talk is about how to find a Maliki for Afghanistan. Such a man can be found, provided the U.S. undertakes the same policy changes that helped the “surge” succeed in Iraq, paving the way for American withdrawal in under 40 months.


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